Agapanthus: From Africa to Indiana

This might be one of the warmest winters on record for the Chicago area. But to a bulb from Africa, it's not saying much. On a 65 degree day in February (yes, I'm talking the Midwest), I decided to check on some of the bulbs I'd attempted to overwinter in the garage.

I was amazed over how well the Agapanthus fared. It had grown and bloomed last summer in a pot that barely contained its bulk. I left it in its pot, cut back the leaves and tucked it into a cardboard box lined with more cardboard and put it on an out-of-the-way shelf in the garage. Just three months later, it's ready to start without me.
Newly repotted Agapanthus is raring to go.
Its new leaves were pale but perky, and seemed not to care that they didn't get any light. It's why they're nearly white--they can't photosynthesize without sunlight. I knocked the plant out of its confinement and, using a sharp knife, cut its root ball in half. Each half ended up the perfect circumference for my bloemBagz planters.   I've used fabric grow bags before and had mixed results, however, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I thought they'd be perfect to sink into a larger planter in order to be able to pull the plant in the bag out later. It didn't work, probably because the soil surrounding the cloth pot turned it into a non-breathable barrier, which led to rot.          
So this year, I'll be leaving the bloemBagz planter out on its own. If it starts to dry out too quickly, I can place it into a larger plastic, fiberglass or ceramic pot. I potted them so the soil level leaves about an inch of material all around.
Bloem has stepped up the fashion on their planters, which are made from recycled water bottles and other recycled materials. It's double-layered yet breathable, so it should be ideal for plants whose roots don't like to be constantly wet. I used two red planters for the split Agapanthus. After watering the plant in, the bottom of the pot became so saturated, and I had to find something to put it on before bringing it inside for the night (Wet roots + 40 degree temps = bad things). The pots eventually soaked up the saturation so that I could put them directly on the heat mat under the lights. 

Here in the Midwest, where winters are no walk in the park, Agapanthus would rather die than bloom.  I've learned that, unless you buy one that is in bloom and/or incredibly ready-to-pop-out-of-its-pot root bound, it will take another season or more before it's ready to give you some flowers. 

The Agapanthus I divided is the only one that has any chance of blooming this year. Dividing it will promote root regeneration and growth after it settles into its new digs. Which is where the bottom heat and indoor culture comes in. Thanks to the unseasonable weather, I was able to perform the really messy job of dividing and repotting it in mid-February. So it has at least a month's head start. 
Variegated Agapanthus in September, 2016.

Variegated Agapanthus in February, 2017
Another Agapanthus has been growing indoors since I potted three small plants up into a clay planter. It's called Agapanthus 'Neverland', and it's basically a short variety with variegated leaves. Last September, I was given three plants in 2" pots to try. I planted them all into a 12" diameter clay pot and have been growing the potted plants under lights all winter long. It hasn't grown that much on the surface, but judging by how quickly it dries out, its roots are busy bulking up for the next round. I will be very pleased if it gets pot bound in another seven months. Perhaps it will bloom in 2018. When you're growing a plant that comes from the other side of the world, you have to be patient.



Flowers Make the Winter Wane

In the first three months of the year, even the tiniest flowers mean a lot. Sure, it's easy to wax rhapsodic about a plant's gorgeous leaves when the sun is shining and it's above 70 degrees. But on four-layer days when you're looking for your down vest, it's flowers that are called for.
I'm glad I took cuttings of my Pelargoniums last November. And ordered a few more this year. And I'm really glad I kept my Lachenalia happy throughout the summer when it required warmth and dryness. Lachenalia are easy to grow once you get the hang of it. Plant the bulbs and forget about them until they start to grow. I discovered they make great cut flowers, too. They last in a small vase for more than two weeks! And I found that Pelargonium leaves make good "collars" for encircling the flower stems.  
Pelargonium ‘Cerise Carnation’ is an ivy geranium hybridized in the U.S. in 1955.

 As for the pellies, I can't say they're blooming their little heads off, but many of them are pushing out buds and opening up to bring me joy in a colorful package. One of my theories about their ability to bloom without too much trouble is that they don't require a lot of humidity. If you've ever tried to grow things like Gardenias or even fuchsia indoors, you've suffered the frustration of watching a bud form over a period of weeks, plumping up to a promise, and finally, dropping off like a run-on sentence. 
Pelargonium 'Mosaic Silky' in bud.
If light is scarce, get some lights. Plants that bloom indoors in the dark of winter are scarce. If you have a sunny window--I mean a window that consistently lets sun in--you might just have success. My lights are set up above tables that are just inside a bank of south-facing windows. I could have put the lights anywhere, but I figured I might as well take advantage of the natural light.

I won't say no to the flowers of Pelargonium 'Mosaic Silky'. 
Natural light - the kind that comes through the window - signals the plants it's time to wake up and grow. In case you hadn't noticed, the days are getting longer. The plants notice and are perking up like dogs with a new toy. They're drying out more quickly, partly because their pots are filled with more roots than they had when I first planted them.

Oxalis adenophylla
I purchased Pelargonium 'Mosaic Silky' from geraniaceae.com in late November. The leaves on this zonal type are certainly enough to make this plant worth growing. But the flowers are nothing to sneeze at, with their ruffled party dress pink blooms popping open from stems that reach just above the leaves.

One plant I've come to love enough not to be without is Oxalis adenophyllaAKA silver shamrock. It's grown from a tiny bulb that takes its sweet time emerging. I planted them as soon as I got them--late November. They take nearly three months before you can see anything, and then they slooowwwlllyyy grow up to about four inches tall--leaves and flowers at the same time.

It doesn't seem to matter where you put them or whether you keep them dry or toss a little water on them when you think about it. It just takes that long.

Freesia alba
It's easier to anticipate blooms when you see the buds. In the case of Freesia, which I planted in late November, I'm finally seeing flower buds appearing as if between the leaf stalks. These are tricky to water, especially if you grow them in a plastic pot, leaving less margin for error. They prefer it dry and cool; in their native southern Africa they bloom in winter in sandy locations. The one that is the most vigorous is the species F. alba, described in Cape Bulbs by Richard L. Doutt as having the most primitive form and the most fragrant flower. I hope to post photos soon.

Houseplant Basics

If you grow plants indoors, they're called "houseplants," even if they're the type of plant that spends the summer outside. Whatever you call them, growing them well will keep you and the plants much happier. Here are just a few basics that will serve you well when growing just about anything indoors in a pot.

1. Turn towards the light. It's what plants do, especially if that light isn't directly overhead. I have too many plants to keep them all right under the lights, so I have to turn them. It might sound anal, but it's good to turn them in a clockwise direction. Always. The reason is simple: who can remember which way you turned them last time? 

2.  There is no such thing as a dormant leaf. It's either bringing home the nutrients or it's not. A browned or yellowed leaf isn't doing anyone any good, so it's best to remove it. 

3.  When potting up plants in the fall or winter for growth indoors, use potting soil with gritty amendments. Unless you keep your house in the 80-degree range, your plants' soil will stay moist for a long time--especially if they don't get the light they're used to. I buy a good potting soil and add vermiculite and medium chicken grit, which you can buy from your local feed store. 



4.  Use a heat mat. Although some plants prefer it on the cool side, many seem to like it hot. I keep the heat-lovers on a heat mat, which can raise the soil temperature 10 to 20 degrees F above the air temperature.

5.  Learn everything you can about the plant you're growing, even if you only know its common name. Google its name and gravitate toward university extension services for the most accurate information, including the plant's botanical name. Then Google the botanical name.